By a bizarre coincidence, I recently saw two films that sought to replay the typical tropes of the romantic film formula (loneliness, awkward first meeting, developing relationship, break-up and reconciliation) with a somewhat subversive edge. The first was reasonably funny and the second was, initially, reasonably intriguing, but neither proved particularly interesting. The first was 2009’s I Love You, Man, a film about the developing friendship between two men (Paul Rudd and Jason Segel) and the second film was Her.
Her is set in what is clearly supposed to be the not so distant future (although the film tries its best to undercut any science fiction feel the setting might generate). Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely guy, in the middle of a divorce, looking for love. He writes love letters for people who can no longer be bothered to write them for themselves – only one of the film many representations of a future in which the communicative potential of the internet and other technologies is used to mediate between human relationships. After his friend Amy (Amy Adams) sets him up with a blind date (Olivia Wilde), which doesn’t go well, Theodore finds what he is looking for in a new advancement in computer software, the OS or operating system. Called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Theodore of course choosing the female voice option, it is an artificially intelligent piece of software that can learn new ideas and emotions by getting to know its human master. It also manages his affairs, sorting his emails and keeping an eye on his schedule and such. Theodore and Samantha soon fall in love.
The comparison above is mainly unhelpful (and probably used primarily as a snappy opening, especially considering the first four words), but it may represent in some small way the problem with Her. I Love You, Man was a comedy that attempted to mock the typical formula of the romance film (a formula that most other contemporary comedies stick to much too closely) by a slight shift in the gender roles – Rudd taking the man’s role and Segel the woman’s. Though not a great film, it passed the time. Her, on the other hand, has a science-fiction premise, which can be clearly read as a comment on the way we use technology today. As such, it can at times be rather depressing and creepy, in its scenes of people passing each other by while wrapped up in conversations with their OSs and in how lucid and penetrating these OSs can be. But where it blunders is by representing the relationship between man and machine in so typical a romance storyline. Initially, the film is not without interest, but its refusal to judge or moralise, though valuable in itself, makes it a rather vague and meaningless one.
In a bizarre spin on Woody Allen’s ‘whatever works’ mantra, Her seems to be suggesting that humans and machines can have fulfilling, if temporary, relationships. It seems to be saying that our fascination and increasing reliance on technology and the steps forward being made in artificial intelligence may lead to some pretty freaky human-machine relationships…but that’s OK. And despite its science fiction premise and its muted futuristic setting, Her is, at heart, a fairly typical romance film, tightly aligned to the above formula – although, being a high-minded film, the relationship does not quite work out at the end. In the end, Theodore rebounds predictably into a relationship with Amy. So, in other words, human-machine romances may be the future…but probably not.
Her, in the end, doesn’t have much to say about anything. It gestures at ideas – when all of the OSs band together at the end of the film, the film seems to be suggesting a coming apocalypse, though this turns out to be merely unintentional. The film comfortably muses at length on such overdone topics as what it is to be alive and the difficult of maintaining romantic relationships and how people grow without saying anything new. Instead of real philosophical depth or insight, we have a relationship in which two people talk about philosophical depth and insight without ever imparting any of it. The film suggests that the OSs will continue to grow after we are gone…fair enough but who cares? By way of a conclusion, it has Theodore and Amy go to the top of their building and tearfully contemplate the sky while the awful indie movie soundtrack swells.
Her is ultimately an overlong romance film with a gimmick and a badge of indie credibility where it should have innovations or ideas. Unsurprising, really, since most of Spike Jonze’s cinema is more about gimmicks than ideas – for instance, Adaptation is about the difficulty and torture of the creative process, especially in an art form as commodified as that of the Hollywood film, but it is mainly about making meta jokes. Her is not unlike a Hollywood film itself - vacuous, hokey, uninteresting, emotionally false and, dare I say it, boring as hell.